Green areas are great; they have the potential to attract a city’s residents to enjoy nature, relax, and get some much-needed fresh air. Safety, though, is a large element of that enjoyment; so how can we ensure green areas are well-kept, maintained, and don’t pose any danger? We spoke to Elena Madison, an expert in implementing safe and inclusive green spaces in urban settings.
Founded in 1975 and based in New York City, the Project for Public Spaces is a not-for-profit organisation, aiming to creating cities with and for the people that use them on a daily basis. “We focus specifically on work in public space, on studying, understanding, and then transforming, improving, envisioning public spaces with the communities and people who use them,” clarifies Elena Madison, Director of Projects at the organisation. “We’re not only researchers and academics; we’re out there every day, encountering real public spaces and the way people struggle or discover great ways to use them, and make them inviting and liveable for everybody.”
Throughout our conversation, we spoke about what makes green areas safe. And the first thing that needs to be defined is the term ‘green space’ itself.
There isn’t just one way or formula for making all green spaces safe as they come in all different shapes and sizes, like parks, meadows, wild landscapes, etc. Safety depends on “the intent and location of the space,” elaborates Elena. In urban areas, park spaces with more users tend to be safer, while natural landscapes face other safety factors (e.g. threats caused by wild animals). “We sometimes take this ‘safety’ as a blanket statement, but there’s very different levels of safety for whom and when. And that’s when things become a little more complicated,” explains Elena. To make this valuable information clearer, we’ll focus mainly on park spaces, as they tend to appear the most in urban environments.
Now that we have a picture of the urban park space in mind, general factors for making such space safe are:
- people and connection to the place,
- police, security, and access to help,
- good lighting,
- providing visibility,
- good layout of the space,
- good maintenance of the park,
- protection from (speeding) vehicles.
To learn how to ensure these elements factor in the park, read more in this useful Project for Public Spaces’ article.
However, sometimes the measures can be taken too far. In the US, for example, there is a series of measures taken for safety, “and oftentimes, those measures are not user-friendly. They tend to diminish the space and the function of the space,” says Elena. One example is defensive architecture.
From metal bars on public benches and sharp metal teeth on garden walls, to removing tables and chairs, it’s all meant to keep the ‘unwanted’ away. To which Elena opens up a mindful discussion: who even are unwanted, and what even is appropriate behaviour?
No matter the ethical discussion, such measures make the space unusable for everybody, and “a lot of these measures target the most vulnerable people in communities: homeless, people with mental health problems, people with social problems. And instead of offering them help, they make the space completely empty and uncomfortable for everybody,” elaborates Elena.
“Today we live in a world where being inclusive is very important, understanding the needs of others is very important. So, inclusivity should be a part of the design practice and the practical running of public spaces.”
Not-for-profits maintaining parks, however, have more understanding and empathy for people who might be in crisis, and inclusive park management embraces the need for providing for the needs of everybody. “Vulnerable people’s visit to the public space becomes like everybody else’s visit. They are in the public space because they want to be there, as opposed to being there because they have nowhere to go.”
“Public spaces are all about people; they’re all about social connections; so all the questions of safety really are questions about social issues.”
Challenges of Making Parks Safe
When creating safety in park spaces, defensive architecture is just one of many challenges, much of which are connected to social relations:
“There are cultural, ethnic, and gender variations of what is considered safe.”
Safe Space for Women
Generally speaking, women are more sensitive to their surroundings. Design and the way society works contribute to women feeling unsafe in places where men feel perfectly safe. This is not unreasonable. In fact, more than three quarters of women have been verbally harassed in public, reports NPR.
Different Cultures Experience Safety in Different Ways
People of colour may feel less safe in certain places; 54% of Black individuals are less likely to engage in physicall activity outside; this percentage is even higher when living in predominantly White neighbourhoods. Read more about the lack of safety for communities of colour here.
And with another example, lack of streets, sidewalks, and transit connectivity in Latino neighbourhoods all contribute to fewer Latino communities accessing parks; only 1 in 3 live within its walking distance.
Safety from Vehicles
According to Elena, speeding cars are one of the biggest issues right now, and they pose a great danger to the park’s visitors. This is something that needs to be considered when designing the infrastructure and making parks safer.
“What I see a lot in our practices is that issues of safety are really about keeping away behaviours that certain groups may consider unacceptable,” explains Elena, adding that there are wrong perceptions about the lack of safety that are really “about censoring behaviours, especially of groups of lower prestige and power.”
Responsibility of Providing Safety Elements
All that being said, on whom then falls the responsibility for ensuring park spaces are safe? Who makes sure these needed safety elements are all in place?
Typically, it’s municipal governments and park departments that take care of the maintenance and overall safety of public spaces (including parks). But there are some instances, especially in the US, where certain parks are run by public-private partnerships or not-for-profit organisations. Thus, parks are given more attention, including safety-wise. In such cases, “the efforts around safety tend to be more sophisticated, more intentional, and often very successful,” adds Elena.
How to Make Park Spaces Safe
Considering all needed factors, how do we go about incorporating them? Where to begin?
1. Talk to People
For Elena, the first step of CityChangers would be to talk to stakeholders and all representatives of the various groups, to understand why they may feel unsafe, and then listen to them about what would make them feel safer.
2. Include All Members of the Community
“The first and most important way to make people feel included and welcome is to actually include them in the creation process,” points out Elena. Including residents in the process, even from the beginning, is the best way to get them on board. It establishes that much-needed personal connection to the place that will ensure it is looked after and taken care of.
3. Make an Effort
Having said that, the reoccurring problem, especially in lower-income communities, is that residents are too busy to be involved. They don’t have time to attend a planning meeting; they work almost the whole day, and when they don’t, they take care of their children. Elena’s smart and easy solution is therefore for planners to make an effort, bring the meeting to them, and really make less affluent community members feel included and welcome to participate.
4. Connect People
“More people means more safety,” simplifies Elena, emphasising that it’s all about people feeling connected to the space and being familiar with the people in it. “We all look for public spaces that will keep us safe from harm, safe from crime, safe from violence, and safe from harassment.” Therefore, ‘eyes on the street’, even though they might make us feel watched, can actually be a good thing; this type of informal watchfulness tends to reduce the number of isolated places and so the risk of crime.
“The main thing really is about connecting with the people in the community, understanding their needs, and providing creative opportunities for others to be involved in the space and have a connection to the space,” advises Elena.
Safety in Green Spaces in a Nutshell
“We’ve had some moments of rethinking the definition of safety and the understanding of who was the subject: safe for whom?”
This perfectly captures the essence of safety measures in park (and public) spaces. Green areas should be all about people, should provide a safe space to relax, destress, and simply enjoy the outside air. Therefore, the main thing is to talk to people, make them feel included, connect them to the place, establish the feeling of comfort when interacting with other visitors. If we’re not making public spaces safe for people, what’s the point of them in the first place?